How ‘Drive-Away Dolls’ Artistically Reinvigorated Ethan Coen

The director also confirms he and brother Joel are working on a horror movie

Drive-Away Dolls
Focus Features

In the early 2000’s, Ethan Coen, one half of the brotherly directing partnership (with Joel Coen) that gave us modern classics like “Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men” and “Raising Arizona,” worked on an entirely different type of movie with his wife, Tricia Cooke. Instead of the laser-like precision of the movies he made with his brother, it was looser, more colorful, with big jokes and a very silly title.

“We started with the title, which was ‘Drive-Away Dykes.’ I came up with [it with] a friend in a bar and Ethan and I were like, ‘Oh, that’s a good title. We should write that movie,’” Cooke told TheWrap.

For years they attempted to get the movie made with filmmaker Allison Anders, director of films like “Gas Food Lodging” and “Mi Vida Loca,” that were a hugely important part of the 1990’s indie movie boom. “We just couldn’t find the money for it. It wasn’t coming together the way everyone wanted it to,” Cooke said. “We set it aside and wrote some other things. Ethan was working all the time and I was doing other things, too.”

Years passed and Ethan said that he was done with filmmaking.

“The last couple [movies] I’d done before were just really difficult, in terms of production. They were difficult movies to make,” Coen said, referring to the Netflix western “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (which started life as a limited series and eventually mutated into an anthology film) and their Hollywood satire “Hail, Caesar!” “Not that it wasn’t fun, it was still intermittently fun, but Joel felt the same way – ‘Those last two. Man, they were hard.’ I’d not decided anything definitively, but took some time off.”

During the pandemic, though, Coen and Cooke collaborated on a documentary, “Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind,” which was produced by A24 and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2022.

“When we did that, he was like, ‘Oh, this is fun. Let’s see if we can get Drive-Away Dykes made,’ and so we did,” Cooke said.

When they decided to resurrect the project, they did a fresh re-write on the original script. “The two main characters are somewhat different. I don’t even know how to describe how. More the romantic comedy, polar opposite thing, that’s more heightened in what we wrote,” Coen said, referring to the characters played by Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan, who rent a car to get away from their crummy life in Philadelphia and embark on a trip that gets them embroiled in a scheme involving a politician and a box full of very important dildos.

“We put in more bad jokes,” Cooke added.

They also decided to set the movie in 1999, on the eve of the millennia. “It had been contemporary and then it became period because we didn’t want people to have cell phones or be able to communicate easily,” Cooke said.

To populate the oddball road movie, Coen and Cooke called on a very starry array of supporting performers, including Pedro Pascal, Bill Camp, Colman Domingo and Matt Damon.

Coen said the cast was “invigorating.” “As fun as they are to watch, which I hope they are, but that’s how much fun it was to be with them. They’re just all great,” Coen said. “She’s just got so much fun energy. I often describe her as a big golden retriever puppy. She just flounces around. Jamie was a specific character. She’s actually based on one of my closest friends who is very free-spirited,” Cooke said. “When Margaret came in she had that quality.”

In fact, Coen said, Qualley recently met that dear friend of Cooke and Coen’s. He said that, in a similar way, Jeff Bridges met the real-life “Dude” the character was based on for “The Big Lebowski.” “In both cases, the actor meets the person and you see them first being a little puzzled. ‘That’s what the character is?’” Coen said. “And then you see them going ‘okay’ and checking out. It was pretty funny.”

Coen and Cooke bonded with Qualley, who will be back for their next movie “Honey Don’t.” “This new movie is a private detective movie and Margaret just seems perfect for that,” Cooke said. When they met her for “Drive-Away Dolls,” they already knew she was perfect for the follow-up movie. “We were like, ‘Oh, there’s Honey,’” Cooke said. She will star alongside Chris Evans and Aubrey Plaza. They’re about to start shooting in New Mexico.

Managing the rest of the cast, particularly Pascal, was more difficult. He came to Pittsburgh to shoot from Madrid, where he was working on “Strange Way of Life.” But once people signed on they knew what they were making. “We send them the script, obviously, and that speaks for itself,” Coen said. “Once they’re there, like Matt and Pedro, everybody totally understands. They understand where they fit in and that frees them to go all in. They go, ‘Hey, I get what this is. Here I go.’ They’re totally easy because they totally understand. “

This understanding of the “Drive-Away Dolls” vibe also extended to the below-the-line talent.

“Ari Wegner, the DP, who’s great. We’re on the exterior of this diner set with the diner where they open the box, and the Halliburton case, and see what’s in it. The girls crash out the door and Ari was walking around. There’s a little arrow way up in the corner of the building and Ari said, ‘Should we do a crash zoom back from the arrow just to open the scene?’ It was the dumbest idea anyone had ever had in the history of making movies, but in the context of the movie it makes perfect nonsense,” Coen said. “We went, ‘Yeah. Right. Sure.’ And that is in the movie and it just goes by because it does fit into the aesthetic.”

Coen paused and then said, “I’ll tell you where my mind is going again. I cannot picture Roger Deakins saying to us, ‘Why don’t we start this scene with a crash zoom back?’ That would just never happen. And yet.”

Besides “Honey Don’t,” Ethan said he and Joel have written a new script together that they finished last summer. It’s a horror movie. Why a horror movie? And why now? “Well, why now for any of them,” Coen said. He promises a lot of fake blood. And … feathers?

It’s only been a couple of years since Carter Burwell, the composer of “Drive-Away Dolls,” and many of the Coen Brothers’ movie, said Ethan was really done. Now, he seems renewed. Perhaps for a man who just made a movie about a road trip, he’s got a full tank of gas and he knows where he’s headed next.

“Drive-Away Dolls” is in theaters now.

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